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Tuesday, September 05, 2017

The ten best single words in Steely Dan's songs

Chuck Berry prided himself on being able to use words you didn’t often find in pop songs. So did Bob Dylan. And Joni Mitchell.

But nobody did it better than Steely Dan.

In memory of Walter Becker I launched a Twitter search for the best single words used in their lyrics.

I’m not counting actual place names like Guadalajara and Hackensack; nor made-up places like the Custerdome.

I’m not using real people’s names like Cathy Berberian or Thelonius.

These are the ten best single words in Steely Dan lyrics, as chosen by lots of people on Twitter and put into order by me. Why not? It's my blog.

  • “Squonk” in “Any Major Dude Will Tell You”
  • “Oleanders” in “My Old School”
  • “Scrapple” from “Josie”
  • “Kirchwasser” from “Babylon Sisters"
  • “Merengue” from "Haitian Divorce"
  • “Skeevy” from “Cousin Dupree"
  • “Bodhisattva” from “Bodhisattva”
  • “Spoor” from “Rose Darling"
  • “Dolly” (as a verb!) in “Haitian Divorce”
  • These are all great suggestions but my winner is still “piastre” in “Doctor Wu”. 

There’s lots of fascinating reading about references in Steely Dan songs in the fabulous Steely Dan Dictionary.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Funny how podcasters never talk about the kind of advertising they get

I listen to a lot of podcasts for my Guardian Guide column.

Traditionally podcasts have been a tough advertising sell. Nobody knows whether the figures they claim are reliable and even if they are nobody can decide whether they're surprisingly big or surprisingly small.

However since the success of Serial the profile of the big podcasts in the USA has grown. The people who host them are well-known; they're refugees from press or politics, know how to put themselves over and sometimes even get invited on TV chat shows. The biggest podcasts now have backers who are paying the talent and hoping they can make their money back through advertising.

These adverts are the kind of thing it would be very difficult to buy on traditional media. They're the kind of thing you might have come across in the early days of TV when the host would break off to hymn the virtues of a brand of cigarettes or a detergent. What the advertiser wants is the presenter recommending their products to the listener. Some podcasters can do this with a straight face. Some can't. They'll learn the hard way.

What's more interesting is the kind of advertising these podcasts attract. This tends to be aimed at cash-rich childless couples, the sort who like to think of themselves as "time-poor" (as if any sub-set of the population has more time than any other) and are immensely attracted by the idea of contracting out any of their domestic requirements to a service they can interact with without talking to a human being.

In this post Uber, post-Deliveroo world you can get anything delivered to your door because it's taken for granted that one is simply too busy on Instagram to actually go to the shop in the High Street and get it.

Inevitably this means that the shop on your High Street closes and the retail sector shrinks further with predictable consequences for the local environment and the job prospects of people who are never going to make a living out of the digital economy. 

Clearly none of these podcasters could change any of this even if they wanted to.  It's just I've heard them opine about so many things that I can't believe that they haven't at least raised an eyebrow at the manner in which they may be benefitting from changes they otherwise deplore.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Donald Trump is facing the kind of crisis all media brands face

Donald Trump's obviously no politician. He's not a businessman either. He's a media brand.

All his inveighing against the media is understandable because, like everyone else in the media, he's obsessed with the media.

He was invented by the media. He was invented specifically by Si Newhouse, the boss of Conde Nast, who got the idea that Trump had done well on the cover of GQ and thought he might have a book in him.

The book, The Art Of The Deal, was created by Tony Schwartz whose story of how it was done is definitely worth reading. The book successfully promoted the false idea that Trump was some kind of deal-making genius, when in fact he was a laughing stock among property developers

Enough people bought that idea for NBC to subsequently hire Trump as the figurehead of "The Apprentice". These programmes built him up into some kind of superhuman figure. As somebody said, he eventually became a poor man's idea of a rich man, a weak man's idea of a strong man.

Between them these two mainstream media companies built the brand that he was able to ride to the White House on a wave of brand synergy beyond the wildest dreams of the Harvard Business School.

His current travails remind me of what happens to all media properties when they come under pressure. What do they do? Stick or twist? Do they try to reach out to a new audience and risk alienating the audience they've already got or do they settle for delivering higher satisfaction to a shrinking core? This used to happen on magazines all the time.

It's even more intense on TV. TV success is always way more personal. TV stars who feel their ratings slipping do the only thing they know how to do, which is turn themselves up to eleven.


Saturday, August 19, 2017

Obviously you want to know what I thought of "Dunkirk".


I hardly ever go to the cinema but when my wife went away for a week I couldn't resist seeing "Dunkirk". Particularly since it was a lunchtime screening on the IMAX at Leicester Square. That's my favourite way to see films. I like theatres packed but cinemas empty. In fact there were just three of us in the place when the usher came out with a microphone and welcomed us, which was unexpected. He called us "you guys", which was rich since all three of us were old enough to be his father.

And IMAX, well. I had asked for a seat in the middle of the place but had to move back two rows when the trailers started because the image was still too big.

One of the advantages of being completely out of touch with films is that the only actors I could name  in "Dunkirk" were Mark Rylance and Kenneth Branagh.

As for the film, I was put in mind of the apocryphal story of the brave but effete chap from Vogue who when asked what he recalled of his experience of D-Day clapped his hand to his forehead and said "Oh, the noise! The people!"

I was aware that people were trying to hang on to their lives in "Dunkirk" but, as is traditional in today's films, I couldn't make out the dialogue that explained how they planned to do it for the prodigious bangs on the soundtrack. I wanted to know a bit more about their lives away from the beach in order to root for them. I suppose I basically find the drama of history more interesting than the spectacle of battle and I would have liked more of the former and a bit less of the latter.

Which explains, of course, why I have no business making feature films in 2017. I realised this when I emerged blinking in to the daylight afterwards, feeling impressed by the craft of the film makers but curiously unmoved by their story-telling skills. I thought back to all the upcoming releases I'd seen trailed before the film had started. I'm sure "Dunkirk" is a lot better than most of them but in terms of what it's seeking to provide it's of a piece with them. The modern film is a spectacle. It's a thrill ride. It seems there's no higher praise.

There's no point me complaining that I couldn't follow the story for the bangs. The bangs are the point.


Wednesday, August 16, 2017

One great war story they won't make into a film

One of the many advantages of never having taken part in a war is you can have such uncomplicated feelings about it.


Vera Atkins: A Life In Secrets by Sarah Helm is the very complicated story of the often cold, always inscrutable woman responsible for sending volunteers into German-occupied France for SOE in order to fulfil Churchill's slightly Trumpian threat to "set Europe ablaze".

One hundred of the four hundred people she sent fell into German ends. At the end of the war she went into the chaos of "liberated" Europe to find out precisely what had happened to them. This quest took her into German prisons, former Gestapo headquarters in Paris and the sites of concentration camps. What was driving her? The need to do the right thing by the young women she had, unknowingly, sent to their deaths? Or did she want to ensure that she was the person whose version of the truth was the one that found its way into the official record?

And who exactly was she, this lady with the cut glass accent and the profoundly English sense of propriety? As Sarah Helm's book gradually reveals Vera's whole life was something of a lie. Thanks to the accident of her birth it had to be.

When I was a quarter of the way in I couldn't believe that this book hadn't been made into a film and that I hadn't already seen Kate Winslet or Cate Blanchett turn up on some chat show sofa talking about what a great opportunity this was to play "a very strong woman."

By the time I got to the end I was no longer wondering. The fates the agents met had been the kind not even Aaron Sorkin could have turned into inspiring drama. The qualities that made Vera Atkins effective were the same ones that made her unpopular.

Although her book is full of examples of unimaginable courage Sarah Helm leaves the purple prose in the drawer and refrains from describing anyone as a heroine. Maybe that's why it feels like the truth.



Friday, July 28, 2017

When Scott Walker was Robbie Williams big

During the Scott Walker Prom at the Albert Hall on Tuesday night I looked around at my fellow concertgoers and thought, this is what most pop concerts will be like in the future - people gathering to enjoy a re-creation of something which was originated long before. A bit like the rest of the Proms in that respect.

The hall was packed with people who, by the looks of them, weren't born in 1967, back when Scott Walker was as big a star as Robbie Williams. In their eyes Scott Walker is a misunderstood genius, an indie pioneer, a prophet without honour, a man who apparently had to wait until today to get his due. This narrative is repeated by Luke Walker in a review in The Guardian.



It's not quite the way I remember it. Scott Walker was a very big deal in the Walker Brothers but he was still a very big deal as a solo artist. His albums were in the shop window. He was played on the radio. He had his own TV series. And it wasn't stuck away in late night. It was prime time BBC television.

As for "the albums struggling commercially", the first three were all top-three hits and the fourth might have done the same if he hadn't made it more difficult for himself by putting it out under his birth name Scott Engel. Then he made a few albums of covers just to run down his contract. As for his name fading he had a big hit with "No Regrets" when he rejoined the Walker Brothers in 1976.

Scott Walker was never actually forgotten. He was simply adopted by another generation and they preferred to think they were the ones who discovered him.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Social media and BBC pay cheques

The unveiling of the BBC pay list provoked lots of comment on social media. None of it was very interesting. 

On Facebook and Twitter people were either falling over themselves to tell you how the BBC was the best bargain in Britain and therefore every penny it paid was money well-spent or they wanted to tell you that it was about time the whole featherbedded lot was privatised. Such positioning statements are largely for show or to keep in with mates and useful contacts.

Meanwhile all the real chat about who was worth it and who was getting away with daylight robbery had tactically withdrawn into Direct Messages on Twitter, individual emails from Gmail accounts, texts and indignant WhatsApp groups.

Maybe this is a tipping point for social media. We've seen the same thing in recent elections. If people are going to say what they think they're going be increasingly choosy about who they say it to. We don't really know any more about what the mass of people think than we did back in the days when nobody asked their opinion about anything.